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Untested Derby cast offers plenty of intrigue

Untested Derby cast offers plenty of intrigue

ANAHEIM -- Prince Fielder won't be out to defend his title. Albert Pujols and Ryan Howard will be taking a spectator's view for a change. Even Josh Hamilton has taken a pass.

But their loss has become eight other players' gain.

The cast in Monday's State Farm Home Run Derby may not be as star-studded as in years past, but the intrigue has hardly taken a hit. In fact, with five first-time participants, this year's event -- which includes no holdovers from last year's Derby and no previous winners -- could become one of the more captivating competitions in recent years.

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Picking a favorite -- Miguel Cabrera, perhaps? -- isn't so unanimous. Predicting how those first-timers will fare -- remember how Hamilton introduced himself to a national audience in 2008? -- when the pressure is on can be entirely hit-or-miss.

By the end of Monday night, storylines are sure to abound. What's particularly captivating about this year's event, though, is that no one yet has a good grasp of what those storylines might be.

ESPN, ESPN HD, ESPN Deportes, ESPN 3D and ESPN Radio will begin their broadcast of the Derby at 8 p.m. ET, and MLB.com will provide comprehensive coverage. Fans with tickets to the Derby can enter Angel Stadium beginning at 2 p.m. PT. American League batting practice begins at 2:20.

"Honestly, the Derby is what I'm looking forward to," said Milwaukee's Corey Hart, one of those first-time participants. "I'm obviously very excited about being picked for the All-Star team, but with the Derby you're talking about being one of only four guys representing your league. That's pretty exciting."

This will also be a first-time experience for Chris Young (D-backs), Nick Swisher (Yankees), Hanley Ramirez (Marlins) and Vernon Wells (Blue Jays). Cabrera (2006) and Holliday ('07) are back for a second go. Each bowed out after the second round in their previous try.

Rounding out the field is David Ortiz, the veteran of the group. This will be Derby No. 4 for the Red Sox slugger, though Ortiz hasn't participated since 2006 and has never advanced to the final round.

"It's pretty cool, you know," he said. "It's good entertainment, and people love it."

Cabrera and Hart hit the most first-half homers of anyone in the competition with 22 and 21, respectively. Hart comes into the contest on the heels of a walk-off long ball Sunday, while Cabrera has been on a tear leading into the All-Star break. Since June 24, Cabrera has hit .444 with 10 extra-base hits and 16 RBIs.

And be sure that the 27-year-old Detroit first baseman has his sights on winning this, too.

"In the Home Run Derby, you have to be aggressive, because it's a lot of pressure," Cabrera said. "It's different, because you don't have the batting cage. You have more people see you. It's like, 'You've got to do it. You've got to do it.' But if you get relaxed and put your best swing on the ball, it's going to be OK."

Swisher and Young spoke much more about embracing Monday's experience than taking home the crown, though the latter would certainly be plenty rewarding.

"Why not just have a blast with it?" Swisher said. "It's going to be a lot of fun and I'm nervous already, but I'm going to go out and have an absolute blast. I'm going to soak up that moment."

"I can't say I was expecting it, but at the same time it's a great opportunity," added Young. "It's a once-in-a-lifetime chance, probably, maybe, for a guy like me. The Home Run Derby, you're used to seeing Barry Bonds, Prince Fielder and Ryan Howard and those guys, so I'm going to go out there and have a good time with it."

For Holliday, the event is poised to be a family affair. His three children, ages 6 and younger, will be watching Dad intently -- likely from the field. Holliday's older brother, Josh, will also enjoy a close-up of the experience.

It will be Josh, an assistant baseball coach at Vanderbilt University, who will pitch to the St. Louis outfielder.

"I got a chance to [participate] in '07, and it was fun," Holliday said. "My kids are getting older, they know what it is, and they were like, 'Do it! Do it!' I think it should be fun."

The Blue Jays were definitely expected to be represented on Monday, though many felt that Jose Bautista, who leads the Majors with 24 homers, would be the obvious choice.

Not that Wells, who has gone deep 19 times already, is a bad second option.

"I'm going to be nervous," Wells said. "I hope I don't swing and miss. I did one in A-ball and I was nervous in A-ball. I can't imagine what I'm going to feel when I get up there."

With only 13 home runs, Ramirez has the fewest first-half homers of anyone in the Derby, though that's not to say he doesn't have the power potential. Since his rookie season in 2006, Ramirez has more homers (116) than any Major League shortstop.

He wavered over participating in the Derby, concerned that his swing might be negatively affected after spending a night swinging for the fences. Ultimately, though, Ramirez took the challenge. And now that he has, his goal is singular.

"I'm going to win," Ramirez said, smiling.

Keep in mind that the Derby isn't all about taking home the postgame trophy either. MasterCard Worldwide and the Stand Up to Cancer initiative have teamed up for a "Hit it Here" initiative that begins during Monday's headlining event.

Two MasterCard "Hit it Here" signs will be hung -- one in left field, the other in right-center -- and if either is hit during the Derby or Tuesday's All-Star Game, MasterCard will make a $1 million donation to Stand Up For Cancer. If a sign is hit during both events, that donation will double.

Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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